By Carrie Osowski
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to practice family law. My parents separated when I was four years old, and it was not until three months before my 18th birthday that my mother agreed to share joint legal custody with my father. After 14 years of being exposed to every detail of my parents’ divorce and subsequent custody battles, practicing family law seemed to be the obvious choice, since I knew I wanted to be an attorney. When asked “why family law?”, I would say it was so that I could “use my trauma for good.” In theory, it was a great idea; in practice, it nearly destroyed my mental health.
At first, I thrived in family law. I believed I had found my professional calling, as I was able to empathize with clients as they or their children experienced various situations that I knew all too well. Then, approximately two years after I passed the bar, I handled a case that was eerily similar to my parents’ divorce. My client was the husband, and the parties had two small children. My client first came to me to discuss requesting a protective order for him and his children. The order was granted for him but not his children. The parties later attended a social early neutral evaluation1 for their pending divorce.
During this evaluation, my client cried while he described the abuse he suffered, the abuse their children had suffered, and the abuse he worried would continue in their mother’s care. The opposing party denied all my client’s claims and insisted the children were thriving in her care. After the two evaluators discussed the parties’ positions, they informed us that because “mom says everything is going well in her care,” they believed equal parenting time was in the children’s best interests. My client was dumbfounded; of course mom would say everything was okay in her home! He did not understand why her lies were so readily believed. As we discussed the recommendations, I explained to my client that without tangible proof of ongoing abuse, a court would likely also order equal parenting time. If his soon-to-be-ex-wife could lie convincingly to the evaluators, she could also lie convincingly to a judge. Unfortunately for my client’s children, that tangible proof would later emerge, but on that day all my client could do was ask for more time to consider whether he wanted to agree to the evaluators’ recommendations.
Circumstances like this became, if not common, then at least not as rare as I would have liked. Clients would ask me, in varying levels of distress, “How can they get away with lying? I thought it was a crime!” Every time I was asked this question, I was thrust back to my childhood, wondering when the court would see through the false persona my mother presented in the courtroom. I am sure when she was in front of a judge, my mother was kind and considerate, and she possibly even cried in order to present herself as a loving mother who cared for her two young daughters. But when she was at home with us, she was the woman who lifted me by the hair until I was eye level with her to ask me if I wanted her to put toothpaste in my hair too (I was seven or eight years old at the time and got toothpaste in my sister’s hair during a fight before school); the woman who screamed at me at our local library for not entering her email address correctly when she was submitting online job applications (I was 11 or 12 at the time, and the other library patrons avoided eye contact with me as I cried); the woman who brought an affidavit she claims was written by my sister to court after I refused to return to her house the summer I turned 15 (nearly 18 years later, I still have a soft spot for court deputies after two of them brought me tissues as I read the affidavit). But I pressed on with practicing family law, because I believed I was using my trauma for good.
While I have spoken openly about my mother’s impact on my childhood, practicing family law made me realize my father also played a role in traumatizing me. One day, a potential client came to my office for an initial consultation. He brought with him his teenaged daughter, convinced that Minnesota permitted children to choose where they want to live once they turned 14. His daughter sat in the office waiting area while I met with her father and listened to him tell me all about how his daughter wanted to live with him, and how it was so unfair to her that the judge refused to speak with her. I advised this potential client of the best interest factors and explained how he could request that his daughter be allowed to give her reasonable preference, if the court deemed her to be of sufficient ability, age, and maturity to express an independent, reliable preference.2 When the client walked out of our office, I thought of my father and knew he would be proud of me for how I handled this situation. Yet the longer I practiced, the more I began to wonder whether his pride in me was misplaced.
To be clear, my father was not abusive. But when I was I nine years old or so, he encouraged my sister and me to remove several serving spoons from our mother’s home. He had been awarded their silverware in the divorce, but my mother never gave him those spoons. We were thrilled to be included in “getting back” at our mother; we were less thrilled when she punished us after realizing the spoons were gone. When I was 10, he talked us into walking to the police station a mile from our mother’s home and asking them to help us because we no longer wanted to live with our mother. As I got older, my father encouraged us to refuse to return to our mother’s care. One summer I listened, but less than six months later a judge later forced me to return to my mother’s care. My father was ordered not to have contact with me for months. The next summer, I again refused to return to my mother’s care, and this time I finally was allowed to stay with my father.
At the time, I was grateful to my father for pushing so hard for us to act on our own behalf. I am still grateful today that I escaped my mother’s home before my 18th birthday, but I also resent my father for putting so many adult burdens on my sister and me. Throughout my childhood, he drew a line in the sand between my mother and him, and he did everything in his power to make sure we stayed on his side of the line to fight against her. For years I justified my father’s actions because my mother was so abusive. But when I spoke at a high-conflict divorce CLE in 2019, I spent most of it wondering to myself if I should also be holding my father responsible for the damage that my childhood caused my psyche. Thankfully my therapist was in the room as I spoke on the panel, and she was able to help me process my thoughts in a healthy way at our next session after the CLE.
I used to reassure clients by telling them, “Someday your child will grow up, and they will look back and realize what was happening during their childhood.” As time went on, I wanted to add, “and they will probably hate you too.” I wanted to scream at clients that their children just wanted to be kids, not miniature extensions of themselves to be pressed into battle against their exes.
Looking back now, I realize I was viewing my clients through the lens of my childhood. While I might have been externally advocating for my clients at mediations and in the courtroom, subconsciously I was viewing cases as echoes of the 14-year-long custody battle that defined my childhood. I was trying to find a way to redo my parents’ divorce, but with a different outcome. Now that I have been out of that area of practice for almost a year, I can see that I was destroying my mental health in a desperate effort to save a version of myself that no longer existed. In doing so, I spent six years embracing my trauma, not healing from it. But I still clung to this area of law, having convinced myself that if I could save one child from an abusive home, my own childhood trauma would be worth it.
The almost-final straw came when I was walking into Target on a lunch break in the summer of 2021. Like most recent college graduates, I have an excessive student loan balance. And like many college graduates with student loans and a cynical sense of humor, I frequently make statements on the order of “if I die, then at least I don’t have to pay my student loans!”
For context, I qualified for every need-based grant available to me while in I was completing my bachelor’s degree, including some grants that have since been discontinued. I also received numerous scholarships and worked for most of the time I was in school. Despite these efforts, I left law school owing $104,146 in student loans. When my deferment period ended, the $10,121 in unsubsidized interest that accrued while I was in school was added to my balance. Between November 2015, when my loan deferment period ended, and April 2020, when student loan interest accrual was paused due to the covid-19 pandemic, I accrued an additional $20,296 in interest. My current total student loan balance is $134,563.
In the years after I graduated and before payments were paused, I often lost sleep while calculating how much I would have to save to pay the tax bill that would be due when my student loans were forgiven after I made 20-25 years’ worth of income-based payments. I would lie in bed, staying awake for hours frantically switching between my banking app, a calculator, and the IRS webpage that shows income tax brackets, increasingly panicking as I realized I was going to fall short. I would then switch to calculating the future loan I would need to take out to pay the taxes dues when my student loans were forgiven.
By summer 2021, I had been approved for life insurance with my wife as my beneficiary, and as I was walking into Target, a car flew through the parking lot. This was not the first time I’ve had a near-miss while walking in a parking lot, but for the first time that day, I realized that I just did not care if it hit me. Not only did I not care, but I almost felt relieved at the thought of what would happen if it did hit me and kill me. I had life insurance, so my wife would be able to afford our home without me, and then I would no longer have to pay my student loans. I was completely and utterly at peace with the idea of my death.3
As I walked through Target, I realized this relief was neither normal nor healthy.
While I was experiencing this personal crisis, my wife was starting a new job working for the federal government (after leaving a job in which she used her own trauma “for good”). She submitted her public service student loan application, and suddenly she was in a position to be student-loan free in 10 years, with no taxes due on the forgiven balance. At that time, I still had 14 years left to pay my undergraduate loans and 19 years left to pay my law school loans. Over the next several months, I waged an internal battle. I loved practicing family law—or thought I did—but was it really fair to my family for me to insist on being saddled with student loan debt, plus a pending tax bill, for nearly two more decades?
The answer came to me from an unusual source. As a graduate of the University of St. Thomas School of Law, I volunteer as a mentor to current law students. In early January 2022, I was participating in a mentor activity with my then-mentee, a 2L who had requested a second mentor earlier that school year. As we were debriefing after the experience, she made comments to me about the role of a county attorney. I knew a position had opened with the county attorney’s office, but until that debriefing I had convinced myself not to apply, partially because I was afraid and partially because my wife would tease me by telling me she couldn’t be married to a prosecutor. That night, I went home, looked at my wife, and without so much as a “hello” or “how was your day?” said, “I’m applying for the county attorney job.” Without hesitation, she responded, “I’ll support you no matter what you do.”
I started practicing criminal law as a senior assistant Olmsted County attorney on March 14, 2022. I was absolutely terrified to switch practice areas six years into my career, but I am happy to report my fears have so far been unfounded. While I miss my old coworkers, and occasionally miss building client relationships, I am much more relaxed now that I am not constantly reopening old childhood wounds. I take my work responsibilities seriously, but I do not take work home with me like I used to, and I no longer take home to work, unless it is in the form of a baked good. I also sleep better now that I am not lying awake at night fretting over student loan payments.
I cannot say with certainty how my future legal career will play out, but I am okay with that, because my identity and my self-worth are no longer tied to what I do at work.
CARRIE OSOWSKI is a senior assistant attorney for Olmsted County and is on the adult criminal prosecution team. She is also a co-chair of the MSBA Well-Being Committee for the 2022-23 bar year.
1 A social early neutral evaluation (SENE) is a form of alternative dispute resolution that is similar to mediation. Two evaluators listen to both parties describe their desired custody and parenting time outcomes and then make recommendations based upon the best interest factors.
2 Minn. Stat. §518.17, subd. 1(a)(3).
3 If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide or hopelessness, please seek help. Resources can be found through the Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers services page at https://www.mnlcl.org/services/